For about the first third or perhaps half of Katherine Addison’s newest, The Angel of the Crows (2020), I was thinking I was finally off the schneid, as it had been about two weeks since I’d really thoroughly enjoyed a novel I was reading. And I was definitely enjoying the pastiche of several Sherlock Holmes stories which basically boils down to “It’s Holmes but with angels and vampires!” Which sounds like a lot of fun, and as noted, it was, at least for that first third or so. But then, well, it never really went anywhere beyond “It’s Holmes but with angels and vampires!” and after about the halfway point my enjoyment began to falter, the story began to sag, and by the end I was left feeling that a neat idea for a short story or novella had been stretched too thin and flat to bear the weight of a full novel.
Which isn’t maybe all that surprising, since the structure of the novel is basically a loose string of retellings of classic Holmes tales, such as The Sign of the Four, “The Speckled Band,” and The Hound of the Baskervilles. All set in an alternate London where paranormal creatures are part of the mundane fabric of life: angels, vampires, hell hounds, ghosts, clairvoyants, etc. Addison makes a few other changes as well. Holmes is transformed into the angel Crow — who sits somewhat awkwardly between a “normal” angel, a “Nameless”, and a “Fallen” — while Watson becomes Dr. Doyle (see what she’s doing there?), though there’s a bit more to the character than meets the eye.
The two best parts of The Angel of the Crows are the world-building and the voice. The most fascinating aspect is the mythology of the angels, which Addison quite deftly doles out a little at a time in expert fashion. The vampiric background is nearly as fascinating and is explained in similarly stretched-out fashion. I wouldn’t have at all minded reading much more about either group. The paranormal element also feels wholly baked into the culture and story, so that we see it even when it doesn’t move the plot forward. In fact, it’s that we see it especially when it isn’t moving the plot that makes it so good, because it doesn’t feel like an artificial way to push narrative necessities. For instance, Doyle makes use of a simile that refers to the paranormal, and the way that world aspect has become attached to simple daily language usage is one of the ways Addison makes us feel it’s a natural part of this world.
The other strong point as mentioned was Doyle’s voice, which felt at first fresh and engaging and which carried me along quite effortlessly through that first half. But then it began to peter out somewhat (not helped by a long epistolary section which I didn’t think was very successful) and fell victim to the flatness and familiarity of the stories themselves.
And therein lies the biggest weakness of The Angel of the Crows. The unexpected paranormal aspect adds a nice patina of freshness to the old stories, but it only goes so far. Eventually you realize you’re basically reading the old stories, which basically creates two problems. One is that you know pretty much what’s happening and you have a strong sense of having read this all before (granted, slightly changed here via the supernatural elements). The second problem is that the old stories, while popular in their time, don’t really, I’d say, fulfill the needs of the modern reader. They’re pretty straightforward, without a lot of bends or turns or unexpected twists, and the same holds true here as well. In one story, Doyle performs an autopsy on a victim, figures out immediately that it was murder, and the murderer is dealt with just as immediately. It’s about as flat a presentation of murderous intent as I can imagine.
Meanwhile, the Holmes stories are interwoven with Crow and Doyle’s attempts to solve the Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel. But that whole subplot feels scattered, shoehorned in, and ends in a disappointingly anticlimactic fashion. Holmes (“Crow”) and Jack have met up several times in fiction and film to far better effect.
In the end, Addison’s novel felt less inspired by the Holmes stories and more constricted by them. With the underlying mythology being so rich, and the character of Crow potentially so, The Angel of the Crows felt like a missed opportunity. The novelty of the supernatural overlay worked over the span of a story or two, but got pushed past the breaking point by about the halfway point, with the end result being that I found myself wishing for Addison to have been a lot more playful and subversive.
The Angel of the Crows is Sherlock Holmes fanfic … if Sherlock were an outcast angel called Crow, Dr. Watson (here named Dr. Doyle) had a paranormal affliction caused by an injury given him by an Afghani fallen angel, and Victorian England were filled with vampires, werewolves and other paranormal beings. In fact, Katherine Addison states in an author’s note at the end that The Angel of the Crows originated as Sherlock wingfic, a type of fanfic in which one or more characters have wings. It’s an idea with potential, but Katherine Addison squanders that potential by spending (I estimate) some eighty percent of the novel simply retelling several of Sherlock Holmes’ most famous adventures with a supernatural twist.
It begins immediately with the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, in which Holmes and Watson (Crow and Doyle) first meet and become flatmates, and works its way through four more adventures that will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s read many of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. The least well-known one is “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,” and that one would only be called obscure by a non-Holmes fan. The framing device for all of this is the search for Jack the Ripper: his murders are happening right while everything else is going on. Crow and Dr. Doyle can’t help but be interested, and interest leads to involvement.
It’s a reasonably interesting novel, even if you’re familiar with the source material, and Addison clearly did quite a bit of research into the Sherlock Holmes canon and Victorian-era crime, with a focus on the Jack the Ripper cases. But I found myself earnestly wishing that Addison had written a more original novel. In The Angel of the Crows, proper angels are tied to a habitation, like a cathedral or even an inn; Fallen angels cause disasters on the level of bombs; Nameless angels have lost their individual identity and their will along with their habitation. Crow is none of these, unique among angels. All this is explained as part of the background and world-building, but Addison never delves deeply into this aspect of the story or unlocks the potential of conflict with Fallen angels. Focusing more on these original ideas would have made for a more compelling novel.
The first adventure of Crow and Doyle, based on A Study in Scarlet, took up the whole first fifth of this novel, and was such a straight retelling of the original (at least, the London-based half of the original) that my jaw was literally dropping by the end of it. The Angel of the Crows does get progressively more creative as it goes along, as Addison includes more twists to the plots of the original Holmes stories. Occasionally an unexpected connection would make me laugh, like this one:
“Introductions!” the vampire said briskly. “My name is Moriarty.”
“Doyle,” I said and, having observed the vampire’s long, curved nails, did not offer to shake hands.
I appreciated Addison’s spin on The Hound of the Baskervilles plot, and she also gave most of the racist, sexist and other outdated parts of Doyle’s stories a much more modern spin. Even gender identity come into play, which would probably make old Arthur roll in his grave. Unlike Bill, I found myself gradually getting more invested in the story as I got deeper into it, rather than less.
Still, for readers who are familiar with the Sherlock Holmes stories that Addison wove into this novel, much of the element of mystery and surprise will be lost. I agree heartily with Bill’s conclusion that Addison should have done much more to transform and subvert the original Holmes stories. I found myself looking forward to the interim chapters about Jack the Ripper, since those events were less familiar to me. Coming from the author who wrote the inventive book The Goblin Emperor, The Angel of the Crows was a bit of letdown.
The Angel of the Crows is a tough book to review. On the one hand, there were aspects that were overly familiar or jarred me right out of the story — early in the novel, the swerve from “set-up” to “mystery solved, let’s move on” happened so quickly I thought I’d missed a chapter or that my book had been misprinted, and it follows the exact track of the conclusion of A Study in Scarlet to a disappointing degree — but on the other hand, Katherine Addison’s world-building is intricate and well-conceived, and the novel only gets better as it goes along.
I really appreciated the different approaches Addison took to this “Sherlock Holmes wingfic” and thought that her inclusion of all manner of supernatural creatures, from jenny greenteeth to werewolves to angels and hell-hounds and more, impacted the story in greatly positive ways. Addison absolutely did her homework and worked hard on the setting: her version of London is convincing, and her inclusion of people and concepts that were either glossed over or completely unacknowledged in Doyle’s original material (meaning persons of African descent living in London, the challenges faced by women, or the disgust expressed by characters over Victorian-era Britain looting India’s culture and treasures) makes her novel feel that much more historically correct. Her character work, too, especially with regard to Dr. Doyle and Crow (both individually and as a partnership), is top-notch. And there are even bits of humor here and there, poking fun at the Holmes mythos or the mystery genre itself.
He had found the cab-driver, sure enough, but the cabbie, like Crow and myself, remembered only the bushy black beard, and while the man had given a name, it was so common as to be patently false. “He could only have been more insulting if he’d called himself John Smith,” said Crow. “’John Watson,’ indeed.”
The mysteries themselves are engaging, though the resolutions hew pretty closely to Doyle’s source material. As I mentioned, Addison puts more of her own spin on them as The Angel of the Crows goes on, and I was the most impressed by her alterations to The Hound of the Baskervilles (which has a great “my girlfriend in Canada” moment), but readers who are more intimately acquainted with Doyle’s work may find this aspect too familiar for their liking. Her incorporation of the Whitechapel Murders was interesting, and her resolution to that plot thread was the most realistic out of the others I’ve recently seen in fiction, though (by necessity) it left a lot of questions unanswered. Life is frustrating that way, sometimes.
In short: yes, I did find The Angel of the Crows to be familiar, but generally in a good way, and Addison commits wholeheartedly to her interesting and creative spin on the Watson-Holmes dynamic. Should she decide to continue exploring this wingfic, I will gladly continue reading. (And my already-extant interest in The Goblin Emperor has increased by a multitude!)
I don’t have much to add that hasn’t already been said. I loved the voice of our narrator, Dr. Doyle, who suffers from a physical and spiritual wound as the result of an attack by one of the Fallen while Doyle was serving as a doctor in Britain’s war in Afghanistan. Wounds with a spiritual component aren’t new, but Addison did it so well here I feel a need to call it out.
Addison brilliantly weaves in the paranormal elements; they are fully part of this believable Victorian world. And her prose is beautiful, as in one line near the end of the book, where a woman’s scent is described as weaving through a space like “a crimson ribbon.” Addison’s fun with Holmesiana is, for the most part, good entertainment (especially the names!), although I side with Bill that by the second half, the book is coasting on its worldbuilding and showing too much point-by-point devotion to the Holmes stories.
I loved the complicated culture of the angels, with their various social strata and their self-assigned missions. Crow and Doyle are both outcasts within their own societies, and both are resisting societal pressures to conform. I liked that a lot. About two-thirds of the way through the book, though, Crow initiates a conversation that seemed like such a huge blind spot for him, so inconsistent with how his character is portrayed, that it threw me completely out of the story. Crow naively asks Doyle why two women can’t marry. How is it possible he doesn’t know this? Crow has become a consulting detective; he is a perceptive, observant student of human nature, who reads the newspapers compulsively. He has been around for a long time. Before he became Crow, he was the angel of a hotel, where he observed human behavior daily. While he may not understand the logic of marriage in this human society, or agree with it, how can he not know it? The conversation exists primarily, it seems, so that we understand the motivation of a particular character, and so that Doyle can remind us, by lecturing Crow, how limited women’s options were in this period. It wasn’t plausible for me. This was a tiny, tiny point that stopped me cold, and made it hard for me to settle back into the story.
That said, I enjoyed the book for its gorgeous imagery, the narrative tone, and the tender camaraderie of our two wounded, but still standing, main characters.